Hours after Kat Chow’s mother dies, her uncle gathers her and her two sisters in his arms and tells the trio that nothing has changed. “OK,” the sisters say, echoing each other in the embrace. Their uncle probably means this as a consolation, to reassure them that they still have family who will love and care for them. But what he says is also a denial—of the trauma of losing a mother at a young age, of the shifts that will inevitably occur in the wake of their pain, and of the strange, capricious nature of grief.
In Seeing Ghosts, Chow (formerly of NPR and its Code Switch podcast) reckons with all the unspoken ways her family warped and adapted in mourning, reconstructing her mother’s life and death through dim memories, dreams, and fragmented stories. Her mother, Bo Mui (or Florence), is a specter summoned as Chow unwraps her mother’s old jewelry box on her birthday, or when the gravestone she designed with her sisters is delivered in the wrong shade of red. As she probes her family and herself about the cost of avoiding the fact of her mother’s death for years, Chow plays an extended game of hide-and-seek with a ghost.
She’s also conducting something akin to archeological research, using census data and historical anecdotes to furnish the context of her family’s emigration and fraught relationship with death and grief. Posed photographs could contain clues, if Chow only studies them hard enough. Many times, without a way to corroborate a feeling (is there ever?), Chow is forced to speculate on a character’s thought process. She also has to leave many questions unanswered: Would her father have parented a son differently than he did his daughters? Was her mother happy? Sometimes, another family member reveals the motive behind an interaction decades later. This unspooling is long and arduous, full of contradictions and opaque conclusions. As a result, the book requires patience—and also re-creates the uncanny experience of grief. Each page finds Chow peeling back the layers that mummify the thing closest to the truth, brushing away the dust to reveal the bone beneath.
Wing Shek, Chow’s father and Bo Mui’s husband, is the most inscrutable figure. Unable (or unwilling) to answer basic questions about how he met his wife, he is impassive for the whole of Chow’s adolescence. Home alone together during her teenage years before she goes off to college, Chow and her father are each other’s foils: one perpetually searching, the other apparently content, no qualms about forsaking the past in order to move forward. It’s a frustrating dynamic, and yet their grief, which is also generational and racial, is entwined, as is their healing. In the book’s most satisfying narrative turn, Wing Shek emerges as the protagonist of his own crusade to (literally) unearth his heritage. Thanks to him, an unknown becomes known, and it feels like a triumph.
The gape-mouthed fish that graces the U.S. cover of Seeing Ghosts is courtesy of Wing Shek, an allusion to a souvenir from a fishing trip that he decided to taxidermy. (Chow’s parents were preoccupied with the art of preservation—Bo Mui once joked that she might like to be stuffed and displayed in death.) It’s also an example of how Chow uses food in Seeing Ghosts, tacitly examining how it shapes grief, memory, and culture. She recalls clandestine Burger King drives with her mother to split extra-large orders of fries (which she mentions at the funeral, to her sister Steph’s dismay), and gai lan soaking in the sink during Lunar New Year preparations. There’s the melted ice cream cake her father presents for her 15th birthday, his earnest continuation of a tradition her mother started, and the steamed eggs she and her sisters share on a trip to their father’s childhood home in Guangzhou. In an imagined conversation, Chow and her mother discuss everything they ate that day in Cantonese, though Chow isn’t fluent.
At one point, applying scholar Anne Anlin Cheng’s idea of the “melancholic” that “eats” and “feeds” on the thing that is lost, Chow wonders if instead of preserving her mother, she is preserving herself. What is she holding on to as she immerses herself in the thing that causes her the most pain? Grief keeps her estranged from herself, but perhaps it also binds her together. Paradoxically, it displaces her and also connects her to ancestors; it provokes her to write a memoir and make discoveries about her family. Although the end of Seeing Ghosts in no way marks a resolution, Chow does arrive at something like a calibration: She recognizes when to find her mother’s ghost, and when to let her go.
Seeing Ghosts. Grand Central Publishing, 368 pages.